Richmond School Board Member Linda Owen put her head in her hands sitting at a small table in the library of George Wythe High School. She emerged seconds later with a plea to other board members.
“We’ve got to get going. We keep putting things off and it makes things worse,” said Owen, who represents the city’s 9th District. “There is no cheap fix here. We’ve got to help people understand that we have got to make this investment.
“It’s more important than a ballfield. It’s more important than a coliseum. It’s more important than anything in the economic life of this city.”
The School Board’s facilities committee was nearing the end of its meeting in late September, a meeting consumed by talks of serious rezoning and consolidation. City schools continued to face — and still face — infrastructure issues that had all but paralyzed talk of other issues in the division. There was no clear solution. The work needed overwhelmed board members. Their self-imposed deadline was approaching.
The deadline — Oct. 16 — came and went with no plan. Richmond voters in early November passed a referendum measure calling for action. On Nov. 20, the first iteration of a plan was presented. Two weeks later, a plan was approved.
If the plan comes to fruition, five schools will be built over five years with two others getting renovations. Work would begin on the $224.8 million plan next fiscal year and officials will continue to review it.
The process frustrated many board members and the mayor, who wrote a letter to the board urging it to take action. After a painstaking few months, the city finally has the plan, and now city officials must find funding.
Since the action last week, The Times-Dispatch has received some questions related to the plan. Here are the answers.
What exactly does the plan do? The five-year plan calls for building five new schools: E.S.H. Greene Elementary School, George Mason Elementary School, Woodville Elementary School, Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School and George Wythe High School. Fairfield Elementary School and J.L. Francis Elementary School will receive renovations.
The new buildings won’t be the same as the current buildings. Greene Elementary, for example, would fit 1,000 students compared with a little over 600 now, while George Wythe would hold 2,000 students — 800 more than it currently does.
The plan also calls for some rezoning: Broad Rock and Greene at the elementary level; Lucille M. Brown, Thomas C. Boushall and Elkhardt-Thompson for middle schools; and Armstrong, Huguenot and George Wythe for high schools.
What doesn’t the plan do? The main thing it doesn’t do is consolidate schools. A total of 17 schools have been closed across the city, which board members considered when making a decision.
“Our city has shuttered many schools over the years and, in turn, trust in our schools continues to erode,” said Kenya Gibson, the 3rd District School Board representative, the day after the vote. “Thriving schools are community hubs of democratic engagement. Empty schools serve as monuments of our segregated history, and further diminish trust.”
Other board members, most notably Jonathan Young of the 4th District, pushed hard for consolidating schools.
The plan also doesn’t extend beyond five years and doesn’t cover every school. Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz presented the board with two plans — Plan A and Plan B — that were both 20-year plans and upgraded each school.
Is this Option Five? No. The board asked the RPS administration to update Option Five — a 2014-15 plan — and present it for approval Oct. 16. In early November, though, a statement sent out by the division and the board said it would be a new plan.
But many of the components of Option Five are part of this plan.
Option Five would have closed 16 schools, built seven new schools and renovated the remaining 21 over 15 years with a combined estimated cost of $563 million. The plan stalled because of the city’s limited debt capacity.
How much does the plan cost? The approved plan costs $224.8 million over the five years. Plan A as a whole would be $800.1 million. Phase I is the most expensive part of Plan A. Plan A has less consolidation and smaller schools than the proposed Plan B. Here’s how Phase I breaks down by school for the approved portion of the plan.
- E.S.H. Greene Elementary School, 1,000 students: $35 million ($3.5 million in fiscal year 2019; $24.5 million in 2020; $7 million in 2021)
- George Mason Elementary School, 650 students: $25 million ($2.5 million in 2019; $17.5 million in 2020; $5 million in 2021)
- Woodville Elementary School, 650 students: $20 million ($2.5 million in 2022; $17.5 million in 2023)
- Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School, 1,500 students: $50 million ($2.5 million in 2019; $20 million in 2020; $17.5 million in 2021; $10 million in 2022)
- George Wythe High School, 2,000 students: $85 million ($4.25 million in 2019; $8.5 million in 2020; $25.5 million in 2021; $29.75 million in 2022; $17 million in 2023)
- Francis Elementary School renovation: $5.3 million ($530,000 in 2019; $1.9 million in 2020; $1.9 million in 2021; $1.1 million in 2022)
- Fairfield Elementary School renovation: $1.2 million ($1.2 million in 2023)
More work is planned for schools — including Woodville and Fairfield — in subsequent years. Overby-Sheppard Elementary School would also receive $3 million for minor renovations in Phase 1.
How is the city going to pay for the plan? That’s the main question that remains unanswered. City officials met Monday for the first time since the plan’s passage. There is a large gap between how much debt capacity the city has over the next five years — $66 million — and how much the plan costs — $224.8 million. That’s not to say the city will use all of its debt capacity to fund the plan. The division is given money each year for capital improvement projects.
Because RPS doesn’t fund itself, the power to fund the plan comes from the City Council.
In his plans for the Education Compact, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the compact would create a proposal to fund the first phase of a facilities plan by March 1.
Does everyone on the School Board support the plan? No. The plan passed with a 5-3 vote, but the timing of the vote played more of a role in the votes against than the plan itself.
The board had originally postponed a vote until a special Dec. 12 meeting, but decided at the last minute to move forward last week with a vote despite no public comment and a board member being absent.
Scott Barlow of the 2nd District was the leading voice against voting last week. Owen, the 9th District representative, wanted to wait until Elizabeth Liz Doerr, the 1st District representative who had left the meeting for personal reasons, was present and because the board had advertised a Dec. 12 vote.
Young agreed with Barlow about waiting until the following week, but still had problems with the plan.
I saw something on the back of my ballot last month about a facilities plan. Is this related? Yes and no.
Yes: The referendum measure was created because of the city’s decrepit school facilities. That’s the same reason the School Board took action.
No: The measure’s call for a charter change must be approved by the General Assembly, which doesn’t start its session until January. The measure has more to do with the mayor.
Why didn’t the board vote on a 20-year plan? Kranz advised against approving a plan beyond Phase I of Plan A because “the facilities needs of the School District and the physical condition of our facilities may change; which could result in a different prioritization of the projects listed or in the type of project that may need to be taken at a particular school.” Essentially the plan is a changing document, but Plan A is the guide. The board will continue to review the plan.
What are the next steps? Finding funding. While the School Board has its wish list, it’s now in the hands of the city. The plan could change based on how the City Council chooses to fund it.
The mayor’s office, School Board and City Council are scheduled to meet again next month.